I am sitting in front of a large gas fireplace inside the famous Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. This is the only lodge that stays open all winter long. My favorite writing spot—Lake Hotel—closed yesterday for the season. Today, I was dismayed to find that the Old Faithful Inn was closed as well (earlier than last year).
So I made my way over to the bustling Geyser Grill—the only place still serving food–for a mediocre cup of black coffee, and now I’ve found this peaceful place in the Snow Lodge lobby, with almost no other people around.
Yellowstone is becoming our own personal play land again, and as the season comes to a rapid close, I find myself emotional, having really fallen in love with this wonderland. Perhaps you’d think having spent so much time here, I’d have seen all there is to see. You’d be wrong. This place is just beginning to unfold for me.
This weekend we hiked to a backcountry cabin. “Outlet Cabin” lies 4.6 miles down Dogshead Trail, or 7 miles down the Lewis Channel Trail. These two trails together form a loop, and the cabin sits near their junction. (We hiked the full 12-mile loop last October when Ruby came to visit.)
Outlet Cabin is a place for backcountry rangers to stay when they are out on assignments. NPS workers (like Rafal) can borrow this place when not in use by the rangers.
We didn’t know what would be in this cabin, so we packed everything we might need. Things like food, a stove, sleeping bags, and so on. With all of our gear plus an adorable toddler strapped to our backs, we were each carrying around 30 heavy lbs. We trudged through tall grass and lodgepole pine trees, over crushed obsidian sand, and made our way down Dogshead Trail to the cabin on Shoshone Lake.
As I walked, I recalled that famous quote by Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Each step like a word in a sentence, there was no other way to get where I was going. Just like writing an essay, the only way out was through. “I hate hiking,” I thought to myself, “but I love having hiked,” and my feet kept moving.
When I caught sight of the cabin, I let out a cheer. This gorgeous wooden A-frame would be our home for the night. Our packs were so heavy and we were excited to take them off! We were ready to enjoy our lunch! I bounded onto the porch for a picture.
And that’s when we noticed the lock. A padlock hung from the cabin’s front door, with no other ways to get in. We had been in touch with the appropriate rangers. We’d made a reservation. No one had told us we needed a key.
Fortunately, Rafal has a radio. He radioed in our situation. A nearby ranger offered to take a boat across Lewis Lake to the mouth of the Lewis channel, and begin walking the Channel Trail towards us with a key. We dropped our gear, ate a quick snack, and set off down the Lewis Channel Trail. After about 2 miles of walking (along the gorgeous channel) we met up with Ranger Tim who gave us the key to paradise. We gleefully skipped back the 2 miles towards our new home.
Inside the cabin was even better than I expected. A fully stocked dwelling with solar lamps; propane lamps and stove; a wood stove and plenty of firewood; pots and pans; spices and cookware; candles, cards, and dice; mattresses, sleeping bags, and pillows: the works. It all felt secret, and special, like we’d gained entry into a private ranger world.
As I am prone to do, I thought a lot about Jack Kerouac. I thought about the summer he spent working as a fire lookout, living off canned government-ration food. I wondered if his place looked like this. I wondered if he felt this special burst of joy, if he felt like a part of something old and important, if he felt giddy, like I did, to be in this home away from home.
Rafal built a roaring fire in the woodstove, and I made a dinner of “tasty bite tacos.” We brought mattresses down from the loft (so Lydia wouldn’t fall) and made a bed in the middle of the room.
I thumbed through a Ranger Project Log: a nice thick notebook bound in green fabric. I read entries detailing when rangers came and went, and what kinds of projects they did while they were here. Things like trail work, cutting down trees, and maintenance on the cabin itself. One of those entries ended like this:
“I’ll leave you all with this thought: all those who man this backcountry cabin remember—what we do in the front country is the necessary evil. What you are doing back here is how it all started, how it was meant to be, you are doing the real rangering. So enjoy every day of it.”
Obviously, I am not a ranger. I am not even an NPS employee. But sitting there in that cabin, soaking up its ancient energy, I knew that I was a part of something important. The park service itself is far from perfect (it is a white boys club now as it always has been, and these “protected lands” were, of course, stolen in the first place) but it is an element of our government that I can get behind fully—setting aside beautiful places, encouraging adventure, respecting nature, allowing at least some pockets to remind us what “wild” means.
Furthermore, I felt like my role was essential. I didn’t feel like “just a wife” (as I sometimes do). I realized that by populating Yellowstone with families, by raising children here, Yellowstone becomes a home, a community, an ecosystem within an ecosystem. This is part of the NPS legacy too.
As I was thinking this, my sweet daughter raced past my feet. She was a fountain of effortless joy in this cabin: laughing, singing, bouncing on pillows, and waving a fly swatter in the air like a flag. The three of us drank tea and reminisced about the summer behind us. Lydia never stopped moving, or smiling, until she snuggled into me and fell asleep.
The next morning, we had coffee and oatmeal and walked down to the lake.
When I saw this fog, this sunshine, this water I cried out a great “Thank you!” allowing a new mist to fill my eyes. Yellowstone is truly amazing. I feel like I’m just getting to know the real her, and I am grateful.